By N. Niranjan Nikam
What is age? Just numbers. How true is this adage, especially as one ages, the bones begin to creak, eyesight becomes weak, ears become hard to hear and healthy life dogged by ailments continue.
All these thoughts appear and disappear, as I enter the house of one of the living legends in the city, climb up the stairs and enter the nonagenarian’s room in Saraswathipuram.
“I am sorry the house is in a mess. I am getting it painted. Do you see the plaster peeling off? There is so much of work, I think it will go on for another two months,” said the man of letters, Prof. B. Sheik Ali, Historian and former Vice-Chancellor of two Universities — Mangalore and Goa.
At 92, Prof. Ali hardly has any wrinkle even when he lifts his eyebrows. His skin is clean, hearing is sharp, eyesight just a little wonky, steps steady and has a razor sharp memory. Eager to learn about the life of the nonagenarian, his daily lifestyle and how he could inspire others, I ask him about his daily routine.
“My granddaughter has said about me — my Nana is a simple man leading a disciplined life. I get up at 3.30 in the morning and read our scriptures. I go to bed at 10 pm. Sir MV (M. Visvesvaraya, the Engineer-Statesman) has said — for a normal man five hours of sleep is enough, for a labourer seven hours, for lazy lot nine hours,” said the Professor with a twinkle in his eyes.
He reads the Holy Koran, which has the Arabic script and the translation in English on the same pages. “I read the whole book in three days. There are 30 chapters in the book and every day I read 10 to 11 chapters. If you have devotion to God then you feel like getting up. I automatically get up very early. You might be shy to pray in the open at times, but when you start reading the Koran, there is no shyness. There is solace, tranquillity, satisfaction and peace,” he said.
After reading Koran, he goes for a walk at 6.30 am and returns an hour later. Then he reads the newspaper for almost two hours, Deccan Herald in the morning and Star of Mysore in the evening.
Asked what motivates him to get up so early to go for long walks, he has a ready witty answer, quoting Sir MV again. “When somebody asked MV the reason for his longevity, he replied, “Death called me once, found me not at home, I had gone walking (Yama bandidda, na maneli irlilla, avnu horthoda)” and he bursts into laughter.
Ask him about his eyesight. “No, my right eye is gone. I go to Bengaluru to take an injection directly into the eye. Each injection costs Rs.25,000. I am doing it for the last five years. It takes three hours preparation for one injection. Then I cannot do anything for the next eight days. It is an ordeal. I cannot even touch a drop of water,” he said.
“Yaargu bedappa, ee tondre… I have to do it every two months. But I do not have blood pressure or diabetes. You take things as they are. There are many people with one leg, one kidney, fading memory, Alzheimer’s and dementia and so I feel I am better off,” said Prof. Ali.
A prolific writer, his 55th book was released recently. “I had written on the History of Karnataka in seven volumes and we brought out a single comprehensive volume,” he said.
He writes everything in hand, literally putting pen on paper. “I am the Editor-in-Chief of the Urdu daily ‘Salar.’ I have to write something every day. Next day it is consigned to the waste paper basket. Hence, whatever I write, in course of time they are all published in book form,” he said.
“I write one article in two to three hours. I have written more than thousand of them both in Urdu and English,” he said showing the manuscript neatly written in Urdu from left to right with not a single correction.
At two O’clock he has his lunch and rests till five. “I am a pure vegetarian. Very rarely I eat non-vegetarian food, may be during Ramzan and Eid. My cook Vishalakshi is a vegetarian. She was sent to me by my sister from Chikmagalur, after I lost my wife on January 19, 2009 and she is with us ever since,” he said.
Prof. Ali does a lot of social service connected with five different institutions. He is the President of Muslim Hostel in Saraswathipuram since the last 40 years. He is a part of a Study Circle, which he started. He started the Muslim Education Society and is the President of Mount View chain of institutions in Chikmagalur.
The nonagenarian is very fond of two things — History and Education. A true Historian, he said, “The country that forgets the past has no future. The seeds of the future lie in the backyard of the past. History is not only knowing and understanding the past but also completing what began in the past, which people tend to forget.”
Education — No one is above the level of a teacher, not even a king or an emperor. The wealth of a nation is not in mineral resources, water resources, forest resources but in human resources, he said.
“The destiny of a nation is made in the classroom and the architect of that destiny is a teacher. But he must be a good teacher. I learnt all this from Zakir Hussain, the former President of India, on whom I have written four books,” the Professor said.
“In India we have secularism but it is being questioned today. In the whole universe, everything is right in India except politics. I firmly believe, ‘No country is like India, no State like Karnataka and no city like Mysuru’,” said Prof. Sheik Ali.
The Professor has his dinner (either chapathi or rice) at 9.30 pm. He also eats banana, papaya or mosambi before retiring for the day at 10 pm.
“I want to die with my pen in hand, not in ICU and not one more injection is my last wish,” he says wistfully, when asked how he likes to leave this world.
As I am about to leave, he picks up the book ‘An Era of Enlightenment’ about the history of University of Mysore which he has penned and asks me to check as he quotes Chamaraja Wadiyar’s speech which he (Wadiyar) made to the students in the 1880s, without a pause.
I open the page as he reads the passage, “Remember that you belong to a nation intensely religious, whose life from early morn to night is filled by firm belief in the Divine presence. Remember that you are the inheritors of the codes of purest morality and the system of highest philosophy and that these invaluable treasures are all locked up in the archives of the ancient library to yield their truth to the earnest student.”
He looks up giving that characteristic look of his, with head turned, laughs heartily as he bids me good-bye. I ask him how he has this phenomenal memory and he replies, “As I am growing older my memory power is growing stronger.”
It is a blessing that nonagenarians like Prof. Sheik Ali are still amidst us today.